Never underestimate the power of a bored housewife.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from The Bletchley Circle, a three-part miniseries that premiered on Public Television on April 21, it’s that a woman with a sharp, lively mind and too much time on her hands will naturally gravitate toward something that keeps her intellect occupied. The Cryptic Crossword can only fill the gap for so long. Eventually she’ll require a more complicated puzzle to solve; one with higher stakes. And you won’t find higher stakes than an investigation to identify and capture a serial murderer before he kills again.
During World War II, Susan was a codebreaker working in the clandestine confines of Bletchley Park. As the series begins, she and her coworkers Millie, Jean, and Lucy—“a few ordinary girls in a tin hut”—crack a German code and foil the enemy’s battle plans for an attack in North Africa. They’re good at their work and you can sense their pride and satisfaction in knowing they have found the place they truly belong. Too bad, as we know, it can’t last.
Flash forward nine years and Susan’s a mother of two living in a tidy little house and married to a civil servant named Timothy Gray. (Gray… As if we needed an extra reminder that her life has lost its color.) She’s comfortable, but she’s desperate for an intellectual challenge and soon we discover that she’s found one. Four women have been murdered and their bodies abandoned in vacant buildings. The police think the murders are related. Susan, who’s been following the case as if it were a particularly complex puzzle to be solved, agrees; but she’s found a flaw in the police investigation.
There’s something wrong with the pattern of the murders. She convinces her husband to use his connections to set up a meeting for her with the police, but they don’t put much faith in her theory. Her Bletchley cred earns her the courtesy of a perfunctory police search, but when her speculation turns up nothing she’s sent home to hubby and kiddies with a verbal pat on the head.
Of course, we know Susan has access to an investigative team of her own who have been lying fallow for years. It doesn’t take much for her to persuade Millie, Jean, and Lucy to reform the Bletchley team and pursue the killer.
There’s a lot to like about this series, starting with Anna Maxwell Martin as Susan Gray. You might recognize her from the Public Television presentation of Bleak House or from the Jane Austen movie Becoming Jane. Now I’m tapping her as heir-apparent to Nicola Walker as the sainted Ruth Evershed from MI-5. She’s just as composed, just as resolute, and just as smart. Until we get Nicola back (which we could, if the powers that be see fit to bring us Scott & Bailey…), we have Anna.
The lives of women in the post-World War II years present a compelling subject to explore. Asked to serve the war effort in any number of ways, the women on the home front rose to the call. How then could they be expected to return to “women’s work” when the war was over? Nearly a decade after the war, these four women haven’t yet come to terms with the fact that their superior skills are no longer in demand. If you knew you were capable of cracking a code to foil a Nazi invasion, would you be content to spend your days tackling nothing more challenging than a pile of ironing? Of course not.
If you’re a puzzle person (and I am), you’ll appreciate that problem-solving skills are integral to the hunt for the murderer. “Treat the killings like a code and keep at it ’til we break it,” Susan instructs the team. So they boil the case down to a pure intellectual exercise that requires the talents they honed at Bletchley: Susan’s aptitude for detecting patterns and sequences; Lucy’s photographic memory; Jean’s ability to dig up facts and procure information; Millie’s street smarts and facility with maps and languages.
I expected The Bletchley Circle to be Call the Midwife with spies instead of nurses. It’s not quite that perfect, but it’s a solid, swiftly paced puzzler that will keep you entertained over the next few weeks, and perhaps beyond that: word is that Series 2 starts filming in May.
Photos © Laurence Cendrowicz/World Productions
Leslie Gilbert Elman is the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts. Follow her on Twitter @leslieelman.
Read all of Leslie Gilbert Elman’s posts for Criminal Element.